Palestinian Hip Hop vs. Israeli Education System

Published on 01 April 2012

Palestinian hip hop music vs. the Israeli education system. A startling review.


DAM is widely credited with being the pioneering hip hop group amongst Palestinians


In Israel, the fate of a nation and its Jewish majority depends on the comprehensive, concertedly Zionist education of every Israeli child. Efforts of Israel-apologists, post-Zionist elements and others to provide a globalized, balanced perspective of civics, history, and human rights in the classroom are nothing less than existential threats to the character and values of the Israeli state. These are the messages driving an ongoing, highly-visible campaign to prioritize Zionism and the Jewish majority in the Israeli education system, championed by Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar and the Netanyahu administration.

But there are other messages. Set to staccato beats and written in rhymes at turns playful and haunting, words of equality, defiance, and unity pour from the mouths of young artists into the minds of devoted listeners. Together, these artists and fans make up the firmly established genre of Palestinian hip hop in Israel, a loose-knit and open musical community that uses personal narrative, shared identity, and a confrontational lyrical style to communicate the perspectives of Israel’s Palestinian minority. In a state that defines itself as ‘Jewish and democratic’, these Palestinian musicians represent the parts of society most threatened- and rejected- by the increasingly exclusive and nationalist conversation about Israel’s cultural identity.

Slippery, racist slope

The historical efforts of the Israeli education system to institutionalize Jewish and Zionist dominance has intensified in recent years.  Perhaps the most alarming and telling of these efforts is the amendment passed in March of last year to the Budget Principles Law, popularly known as the ‘Naqba Law’. This law authorizes the Minister of Finance to cut public funding from any entity that  “marks Israel Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the State as a day of mourning.”[1] Through vague language and transparently discriminatory motivations, this provision creates an atmosphere of fear and persecution that fundamentally censors the teaching of history and Palestinian culture. Forced to choose between essential funding and the conscientious teaching of history, teachers and educators are placed in an impossible bind in which all Israeli students suffer. “It's fascist chutzpah and a new low point in the slippery racist slope on which the Israeli government, Knesset and Israeli society are descending", said the Arab Education Monitoring Committee. [2]

Under Gideon Saar the Education Ministry swiftly mandated changes to the national education curriculum, demanding focus on ‘Jewish and Zionist values’ without highlighting civics, democracy, or Jewish/Arab coexistence.[3] Zvi Zameret, who Saar appointed to head the Pedagogical Secretariat of the Ministry, criticized the nation’s previous civics textbook as focusing “too much on criticism of the state." Further, he explained to Haaretz that the aims of instruction were unacceptable.  "The way in which civics is taught is critical and analytical.”[4]

For the more than 20% of Israeli students who are Palestinian, the personal implications of state criticism and analytical thought are apparent in the classroom, even if they are being erased from the textbooks. University of Haifa Professor and ‘Israel’ Education Prize winner Gavriel Solomon said in Haaretz that the shift in curriculum has transparent motivations. “This is education for Zionism and Judaism without education for democracy and peace, and it promotes ultra-nationalism." [5]

And these changes don’t end in the classroom. Last month more than 260 Israeli teachers signed a letter in opposition to a recently expanded Education Ministry program taking students on ‘heritage tours’ to Jewish settlements in the southern West Bank city of Hebron. The settlements have been condemned as a breach of international law and an obstacle to the peace process by the international community and prominent Israeli government officials. The teachers’ letter stressed that this is the first instance of public, organized teacher opposition to Ministry policy in Israel’s history. In justification of the program, the Education Minister stated:

“It’s good to come to the settlements. It’s good that the settlements flourish. One should not allow the Arabs to harbor the illusion that one day there won't be Jews here.” [6]

Yet another program initiated by Minister Saar mandates meetings between high school students and army officers, with the stated intention of "strengthening the connection and cooperation between schools and the Israel Defense Forces.” The impressive sweep of these efforts to control the education of students in Israel illuminates the values of both the Netanyahu administration and  Israel’s democratic institutions. Jerusalem literature teacher Udi Gur explained to Haaretz the intentions of the teachers’ letter: "The educational system is under attack by extremist political forces, aiming to trade education for indoctrination. We won't allow that to happen." [7]

If you’re not Jewish, you’re a nobody

The implications of these trends in Israeli education are articulated by Palestinian voices, whose experiences are not included by this ideology, and who are simultaneously sharing and creating their own narrative. These testimonies are being spoken, sung, and rapped by those who know firsthand what it is to grow up Palestinian in Israel. The reality of what the education system has meant to them illuminates the exclusion and inequality inherent in where it is going.

“It took me until I was 21 to find out that Arabs were responsible for amazing things in the past. You grow up with such low self-esteem,” says Tamer Nafar, co-founder of the Palestinian rap group DAM.  DAM is a Palestinian group formed in 2001 in the mixed Jewish/Arab town of Lydd, and they’re widely regarded as the pioneer Palestinian hip hop crew. Co-founder Tamer Nafar and DAM have been profiled by the likes of Rolling Stone and VIBE, and he explained to The Times of London the education he knew before the current Zionist focus. “At school you sing the national anthem, asking God to watch over the Jews; it doesn’t mention you. The history books don’t mention you, and if an Arab appears in a story, he’s just the guy serving the hummus.” [8]

Sabreena da Witch, aka Abeer Alzinaty, is another Palestinian artist from Lydd. She explained to Electronic Intifada in 2010 the exclusion she experienced growing up in Israel. “Democracy, it is not. If you just live there for two days you will know that if you’re not Jewish, you’re a nobody. I’m always treated like a Palestinian and they remind me of that every day. There is not even the illusion of democracy there.” [9]

Palestinian-American film director Jackie Reem Salloum created the documentary Slingshot Hip Hop to profile the development of Palestinian hip hop through the stories of DAM, Sabreena da Witch, and others. After Slingshot Hip Hop premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Salloum described to Al Jazeera her reaction to the situation of Palestinians in Israel. “I was immediately shocked with the amount of discrimination and oppression that these people faced living in Israel, despite having Israeli citizenship.” [10]

Made up of two young Palestinian women from northern Israel, DMAR ( دمار) is a hiphop duo whose name translates to “Destruction.” Their first song “Schools” was an instant regional hit, utilizing universal themes of frustration with school to point out the non-universal challenges they face as Palestinian students in Israel’s schools. They recently played a show in Sardinia, Italy with Nazareth based We7 (pronounced ‘weh’),  whose Underground Studio serves as an incubator for regional talent and is described by We7 as “the home of the Palestinian HipHop scene.” [11] The young women of DMAR combine their impressive talent and invaluable perspective to communicate real-world issues to an international fan base.

I wrote the story in my own language, finished it in the lunch break

And maybe it’s time to write a new chapter in my life

I ask the schools to make me feel welcomed

I ask the schools to make me feel like I can learn

-Schools, DMAR

Separate and unequal

These disquieting viewpoints give voice to the historical and ongoing disparity between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian education within Israel. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Arab minority in Israel has been educated separately from the Jewish majority, while the curriculum and distribution of federal resources are dictated by the state. Palestinian academic achievement has always trailed that of their Jewish peers, and this gap is reinforced by the consistent, historical subordination of Arab education in both resources and attention.

In 2001 the Israeli government reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that:

“in 1991, the total investment in education per pupil in Arab municipalities was approximately one-third of the investment per pupil in Jewish municipalities. Government investment per Arab pupil was approximately 60% of the investment per Jewish pupil.”[12]

This discrimination continues. Supplementary funding plans throughout the 1990’s and the new millennium failed to either equalize these two systems or account for past discrimination against the Arab minority.[13] Further, even these insufficient plans were not fully implemented.[14]  In 2008, 31.9% of Arab students earned a matriculation certificate after high school, nearly half of the Jewish Israeli rate of 59.74%. [15] The rate of Palestinians aged 18-39 studying for a first degree in university was 1.8%, half of the Jewish Israeli rate of 3.6%. [16] These data translate to very real implications in quality of life, economic mobility, and sociopolitical awareness.  Pointedly, even as the government has been forced to acknowledge disparities in funding, the Ministry of Education claims that it is impossible to monitor and report the resources allocated to Arab education.[17][18]

"Government-run Arab schools are a world apart from government-run Jewish schools," said Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in its report Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel's Schools. "In virtually every respect, Palestinian Arab children get an education inferior to that of Jewish children, and their relatively poor performance in school reflects this." [19]

Exactly like we are

See, if we stay quiet, the sound of death will drown out our voice.

And if we talk, death’s ears might hear us and swallow us.

But they, the Palestinian artists, choose to scream until death.

So again I’ll scream it to them; THANK YOU! Though my gratitude is nothing to what you do.

-Dedication, “Dedication” DAM

Stated plainly, the comprehensive, heavily-resourced Israeli campaign to dominate and silence a minority culture through the education system is currently operating in the open. The hard truths of its policies and justifications are currently being expressed by a passionate, talented group of artists who will not be ignored.

“Palestinian people were thirsty for this kind of music, and now there are so many hip hop groups out there, in every town, every village.” [20] In an interview with Naked Punch, Tamer Nafar of DAM connected the growth of this by-now-thriving genre to a deeper national response. The Palestinian hip hop scene in Israel is flourishing, as artists perform to sold-out venues in North America and Europe and inspire worldwide interest in the music and the message. As Slingshot Hip Hop director Jackie Reem Salloum explained to Al Jazeera, “The rappers featured in the film are opening a window into Palestinian life in their own way...Hip-hop served as a point of coming together for these Palestinian youth.”[21]

In the inspiring sweep of this message, it is important to pay attention. Because these songs are about more than oppression, justice, and occupation. While this land is called holy and promised it is above all their home, and these artists deserve to be recognized for not just the political gravitas of their subject matter but the depth and execution of their craft. Trying to impose upon them some expectation to resolve the complex environment around them neither respects nor encourages the expression that makes them so unique. At the crossroads of an enormously vital culture and the powerful forces aligned against it, perhaps they instead provide us a simple, important expectation: to listen up.

I dance- I don’t study, cause I’m tired of this situation

Everyday, same routine, so we started Dmar (Destruction)

The name explains a lot; we will build new things exactly like we are

-Schools, DMAR


[1] Hagai El-Ad, Hassan Jabareen, “The ‘Nakba Law’ and its Implications,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 15 May, 2011.

[2] Jonathan Lis, “Knesset passes two bills slammed as discriminatory by rights groups,” Haaretz, 24 March, 2011.

[3] Or Kashti, “Israel’s plan for next year’s school curriculum: Reinforcing Jewish and Zionist Values,” Haaretz, 4 April, 2011.

[4] Kashti, “Top education official slams civics curriculum as slanted against Israel,” Haaretz, 4 May 2011.

[5] Or Kashti, “Israel’s plan for next year’s school curriculum: Reinforcing Jewish and Zionist Values,” Haaretz, 4 April, 2011.

[6] Talila Nesher, “Teachers Oppose ministry’s Hebron ‘heritage tours’,” Haaretz, 6 Feb 2012.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sophie Heawood, “Strangers in the Promised Land,” The Times, 20 Dec 2006.

[9] Tania Tabar, “Sabreena da Witch: the first lady of Palestinian R&B,” Electronic Intifada, 12 April 2010.

[10] Ahmad Habib, “Palestinian Rhythms of Resistance,” Al Jazeera, 7 Nov 2008.

[11] About: Underground Studio,

[12] State of Israel Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Initial Periodic Report of the State of Israel Concerning the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 20 Feb 2001, p. 303.


[14] Ibid.

[15] Central Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2009, table 8.23.

[16] Central Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2009, table 8.47.

[17] Letter from Ady Hershcovitsh, Deputy Director General, Economics and Budgeting Administration, Ministry of Education, to Human Rights Watch (Aug. 19, 2001) (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[18] Committee on the Rights of the Child, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 44 of the Convention, Periodic Reports due in 1993: Israel, at 291, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/8/Add.44 (2002).

[19] “Israeli Schools Separate, Not Equal” Human Rights Watch, 5 Dec 2001.

[20] Hira Nabi, “Born Here: Interview with DAM (Hip-hop group),” Naked Punch, 16 Dec 2010.

[21] Ahmad Habib, “Palestinian Rhythms of Resistance,” Al Jazeera, 7 Nov 2008.